Translation: “Rosa Luxemburg” by Karl Kautsky

Rida Vaquas
Crowd commemorating Rosa Luxemburg's funeral, Frankfurt 1919


What gives Karl Kautsky the right to commemorate Rosa Luxemburg? In the last year of Luxemburg’s life, she described him in separate pieces as ‘the great theorist of the swamp’ and a ‘petty bourgeois formalist’. Kautsky, trapped in his formulas of readiness for revolution, could not account for the world-historical significance of the Bolsheviks taking power; Luxemburg commended their courage to dare on the international proletariat. Kautsky, who was forced into the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) during the war, when the SPD ultimately kicked out its anti-war internal opposition, rejoined the SPD in 1922. He, undoubtedly ambivalently, returned to the party that had called for his former friend’s corpse in 1919.

But Kautsky did not start as a theorist of a swamp – when Luxemburg arrived in Germany in 1898, he was her comrade, relentlessly admiring of her. In 1902, Rosa Luxemburg moved flats to be closer to the home of the Kautskys – you can still do the short ten-minute stroll from Cranachstraße 58 to Saarstraße 14 today. Rosa Luxemburg drew portraits of Kautsky’s sons; enjoyed giving them Christmas presents and holidayed with his wife, Luise Kautsky, with whom Luxemburg remained friends well after she ceased to speak to Kautsky. To read Karl Kautsky’s tribute forces us to remember that the irreconcilable political trajectories the two individuals followed both emerged out of the peculiar world of Second International Marxism.

In an age where Rosa Luxemburg has been appropriated by practically every tendency on the Left – as the old line goes, both East and West Germany put Rosa Luxemburg on their stamps, only so both the Stalinists and capitalists could spit on her – Kautsky is refreshingly honest. He freely confesses that Rosa Luxemburg would have most likely never found her way back to the SPD, that to do so would erase ten years of her political development. He honestly accounts for the growing distance between them in the years 1906–10. When everyone from the most milquetoast of Fabians to the most decentralist of anarchists turns her sharpest insights into meaningless platitudes, Kautsky reminds us that political differences matter.

The very publication of this pamphlet testifies that remembrance is political: Kautsky was prompted to counter Karl Radek’s Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches. Radek, he alleged, not only failed to emphasise these figures’ unique functions in German Social Democracy, but also wrote far too little about Luxemburg, causing her personality to ‘remain in the shadows’. Kautsky regrets that he too lacked the time to do justice to ‘this powerful and fascinating personality’.

His sketch of her personality will move even a hardened communist, perhaps more so, as it comes from a renegade. On the receiving end of her criticism many times, he joyfully acknowledges that all opportunism was ‘unbearable’ to her character, putting her as out of step with the Bolsheviks as the revolution degenerated as she was with the SPD. He does not hold back on his admiration of her unparalleled intellect, talent and courage. It is in her analysis of her politics that Kautsky becomes a party man – frustratingly so.

In 1901, when Rosa Luxemburg was slandered by the trade unionist Robert Fischer at the Party Congress, Kautsky dissuaded her from publishing a declaration in his journal Die Neue Zeit, allegedly out of concern for her as a friend. Luxemburg, of course, saw right through that and pointedly told him: ‘The friend, however, allowed the editor of Neue Zeit to take over, and since the party congress that editor has wanted only one thing: he wants to have peace.’ That wretched longing for peace, intensified over the course of the next two decades, characterises his weak explanations of the differences between ‘English’ and ‘Russian’ ways of thinking and, importantly, his silence on Luxemburg’s murder.

It’s impossible to read Kautsky’s account of the years before the First World War without wanting to hit him over the head with his own books. How did the man who wrote ‘Every effort that preserves or increases the self-consciousness of the proletariat or its spirit of co-operation and discipline, is worth making’ in his commentary on the Erfurt Programme morph into a man who preached caution and defeatism at the very prospect of these efforts? While he schematically asserts that a weak proletariat can’t be expected to do anything about a war, Luxemburg organised to increase the proletariat’s strength, its intellectual clarity and capacity for action. And certainly, it was none other than the proletariat who ultimately ended the war.

Kautsky misrepresents Rosa Luxemburg as advocating to split from the SPD; in fact, Luxemburg was in the minority of the Spartacist Group who consistently argued against an immediate split. In 1917, she wrote to the Left Radicals in Duisburg advocating a complete schism with the SPD that ‘it is only an irresponsible daydream to want to liberate the whole mass of the working class… by a simple ‘walk-out’’ from the party. Ultimately the party was not split by the Left of the Party, but by the Right: the SPD expelled its opposition on 18 January 1917. Commitment to party unity was no longer the issue. A new question emerged: to pursue political clarity and to gather the working class around your own banner, or to subsume yourself into a mishmash of mutually incompatible tendencies?

Luxemburg was not a putschist; she knew that building a new party would not be easy work, she knew very well that the majority of German workers still identified with the SPD. She, alongside Levi and Jogiches, advocated participation in the forthcoming National Assembly elections at the founding congress of the KPD – representing a minority view at the congress. This troubles Kautsky’s self-congratulatory explanation that Luxemburg was just too much of a r-r-revolutionary Russian to understand the German conditions, but it is nonetheless the truth.

Watching the Russian Revolution unfold and decay, Kautsky concluded that the age of revolutions was over. The course of the twentieth century proved Kautsky wrong. Social Democracy, despite the promises of Austro-Marxism at a certain point, did not supersede the old divides between reformism and revolutionism – it abandoned both for the embrace of capitalism. If Kautsky joined the SPD today, he would not find a happy welcome. The fundamental difference between Luxemburg and Kautsky consists of this: Luxemburg took the dare on the international proletariat, and Kautsky did not.

Contrary to Kautsky’s pessimism, Luxemburg’s chapter has not come to an end; her friends push on through humanity’s long night. The existing order continues to rest in sand; it anticipates its own demise. It is Kautsky, as the man who could not swallow his fear to realise the theories he so brilliantly elucidated, who has been left behind by history.

Rosa Luxemburg by Karl Kautsky

Of the three personalities that Radek treats, Rosa Luxemburg was doubtlessly the one who exercised the most tangible influence on the intellectual life of German socialism. She came from Switzerland to Germany almost at the same time as Jogiches, but not to remain here within the constrictions of secret clusters, which were necessary in Russian conditions

She demanded work completely out in the open, for the most intense effect among the broad masses. She remained in constant association with Jogiches, his best collaborator. She continued to influence Russia and Poland and received strong impressions from there. But she knew how to reconcile these with activity in a country which, despite the immense power of its state authority, which was fundamentally stronger than Russia, nonetheless granted the masses much more extensive freedom of movement. A master of the word and pen, well-read, with strong theoretical sense, obstinate and quick-witted, with a downright marvellous fearlessness and irreverence, which bowed to no one – Jogiches being the only exception – she aroused universal attention from her first appearances and won enthusiastic agreement, and yes, in some places almost rapturous admiration amongst those whose cause she represented, and equally won the bitterest hate of those whom she fought against.

And she came to Germany at a time when a heated internal struggle had arisen between ‘revisionism’ and ‘radicalism’, ‘reformism’ and ‘revolutionism’, between a more English and a more Russian-oriented way of thinking. Naturally she joined the latter in all her might, and, as far as it depends upon individuals and not on conditions, she made no small contribution to revolutionary thought winning out.

As she worked in Poland and Russia in closest association with Jogiches, she worked in Germany in collaboration with me and Bebel. I owe to her much help and detailed enlightenment about Russian affairs in her first decade of activity in Germany.

Yet impressions she had obtained in the Russian empire always remained all-powerful in her. She never gained an understanding of the Anglo-Saxon world and of the aspects of conditions in Germany which resembled England more than Russia. The proletarian in Russia (Russian-Polish included of course) endured as the ideal of the proletariat for her. But she was too clever to not adapt to the German conditions to the extent that she knew how to grab and interest the German proletariat. And the revolutionary drive, which she had brought with her from Russia, was what needed to be preserved from imminent extinguishment in Germany at the time. From this there resulted an intimate comradeship-in-arms for me with Rosa Luxemburg.

The first Russian revolution created conditions which ought to have finally brought this collaboration to an end. Russian thought now rose to a one-sidedness in her, which was irreconcilable with German circumstances. The recognition that we were also approaching a revolutionary situation in Germany became to her an urge to compel this situation into being in the quickest and most violent way. And the methods of the Russian revolution now appeared to her as transferable to Germany, which was not improved by the fact that, as I gradually discovered, she herself had an overly optimistic view of the effectiveness of these methods in Russia.

So after 1906, little by little, a certain tension began to emerge between us, which was overcome time and again for period by personal friendship, but finally led to a break in 1910, when my friend sought to make a turn in the Prussian suffrage struggle that she thought had to lead to revolution and what I thought would lead to crushing defeat. Hence we entered into an open feud in the summer of 1910. And at the same time Luxemburg fell out with Bebel for the same reasons. This was sharply expressed in the Jena Congress of 1910, when Bebel confronted the four ‘L’ radicals: Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Lebedour and Lensch.

The conflict between us was only sharpened when the World War broke out. In the last years before the war, Rosa Luxemburg and her friends advocated the perspective that the proletariat should answer such an outbreak with the revolution. In opposition to this, I pointed out that if the proletariat was too weak to prevent the outbreak of war, it is simply not in a position to respond to it by overthrowing the government. On the contrary, just as Engels had earlier feared like me, a war, e.g. between France and Germany, will fill the masses here as well as there with such nationalist ecstasy that even the Internationale cannot become the master of them.

Unfortunately, I was correct in this case and, despite my pessimistic forecast, I was appalled. One can only imagine what effect the abrupt disintegration of her expectations must have had on Rosa Luxemburg. As usual, I received the blame for what I feared because I had announced it beforehand.

In addition to this, I sought to secure the cohesion of the party organisation for as long as possible during the war, whilst Luxemburg propagated a split, because for Russian socialists the unity of the party seemed less important than for the Germans.

The conflict reached its zenith when the Bolsheviks conquered political power in Russia and organised the state according to their views.

In his book, Radek also refers to my disagreements with Rosa Luxemburg. That he is wrong about me is only to be expected.

But it is still a peculiar style, when Radek tries to prove me wrong through antics such as this:

‘It suffices to remember the results of the coalition with the bourgeoisie, which Kautsky endorsed in November, by even subordinating himself as a younger assistant to Mr. Solf, the last foreign minister of Wilhelm II, only to be excused of the duty, to defend the rectitude of Rosa Luxemburg’s attitude in her struggles against Kautsky.’ (p. 19)

Even Radek could have known that a coalition with the bourgeoisie was absolutely not in question in November 1918. The coalition, which I supported, was between the Independent Social Democrats and the Right Socialists. I definitely did not place myself under Mr. Solf, least of all as a ‘junior assistant’, I was sent to the Foreign Office by the Independent Social Democracy as its representative, in the capacity of a joint, and by no means subordinate, state secretary, to monitor Mr. Solf, just as Däumig was placed as a joint state secretary at the side of the Minister of War, Mr. Scheuch. I learned after just a few days that I could not co-operate with Mr. Solf and demanded that either Solf was dismissed or somebody else took my place. I was only moved to stay put by the assurance of the cabinet that Solf’s dismissal had been decided. As soon as a successor was found, Solf quickly went.

We see that Radek has made himself too comfortable when he relieved himself of the duty of ‘defending the rectitude of Rosa Luxemburg’s attitude in her struggles against Kautsky’ (p. 24) by inventing little stories. But it ultimately doesn’t matter what he says about the conflict between me and Rosa Luxemburg. Because this conflict has been laid out in a series of articles and publications which anyone can review for themselves.

It would be more important to learn from Radek how Rosa’s relationship to Bolshevism formed. This is not out in the open; Radek ought to have very important things to say about it. However, he is strikingly silent about this. He restricts himself to a few vague utterances that Rosa was occasionally critical of Bolshevism. Yes, he even asserts ‘Kautsky now wants to barricade himself under the wings of Rosa’s criticism of Bolshevism.’ Such an image of the little chick hiding under a wing to raise a barricade there lacks just as much in beauty as it does in truth, as I have never invoked Luxemburg’s objections in my previous criticisms of Bolshevism with as much as a single word. It has not even occurred to me to dispute that Rosa Luxemburg came ever closer to the communist ideological world in the course of the war, so it surely true when Radek says:

‘With Rosa Luxemburg, the greatest, the most profound theoretical mind of communism has died.’ (p. 25)

In no way is that to say that she would have co-operated with everything the Moscow regime considered good in the name of communism. She had misgivings about the bloody regime from the very beginning, and her ‘rigorously theoretically determined line’ would soon have rebelled against Bolshevik opportunism, which easily sacrifices any principle if it impedes the development of power of the rulers of Soviet Russia. Rosa Luxemburg would have never turned her coat according the changing winds in Moscow like Clara Zetkin. And she had too much self-respect to be ordered around by a Zinoviev.

We have already pointed out how Jogiches, who was closely associated with Rosa, knew little about how to relate to Lenin. The first sharp criticism of Lenin’s party structure was already written by Rosa Luxemburg in 1904. It still signifies a strike at the heart of Bolshevik system today. Rosa would have not become milder if she had to experience for herself that this system put itself at the service of the reconstruction of capitalism.

Well before Levi, and certainly more decisively and skilfully than him, she would have raised the flag of rebellion against Moscow inside the Communist Party. This is evinced by her entire character, for which all opportunism was unbearable.

But in all the opposition within communism, it was not to be expected that she would find her way back to Social Democracy. In order to do that she would have had to cross out all of her development since 1910, almost a decade of her life. Of course, no one may say with complete certainty how she would have developed, if it had been granted to her to go on living and working. There is one thing we can say today completely clearly: No future generation is called to be the type, of which Rosa Luxemburg constituted the most formidable representative in Germany. Because conditions which produced it and which gave it meaning have ceased. This type had important functions to fulfil up until the overthrow of the military monarchy. Up until then, the cultivation of that revolutionary spirit, which Russia nurtured more than any other country, was also of great importance other, somewhat freer military monarchies.

Since the upheaval of 1918, we have nothing more to learn from Russia. Where the obstacles to the emancipation of the proletariat are still evident in our country, they no longer lie in a state constitution to be torn down, but in the superiority of the property-owning classes, that means, in the weakness of the proletariat, which, where it has a numerical majority, can only stem from its lack of unity, its lack of insight into the processes of production, its lack of ability to command them. To overcome these inadequacies wherever they make themselves known is henceforth our most important task. The revolution itself has increased the means to complete this task as quickly as possible, so as the power of the proletariat increases to progressive socialisation, so too will its ability to execute it purposefully and successfully grow.

Insofar as foreign experiences can make our work easier, they are not to be found in Russia. Two years ago, the Soviet model was still widely trusted; it showed us the way to salvation by its urgent practical example. Those who sounded the alarm, who demonstrated that the glittering edifice was built on sand, were laughed at or cursed.

Since then it’s become clear to the whole world.

Concurrently, the workers of England, not only under the influence of indefatigable socialist propaganda, but much more through the swift intensification of class contradictions, congregated into a great labour party, and made it independent of bourgeois leadership and ever more clearly set the goal of the conquest of political power for the liberation of the proletariat through socialist institutions. If henceforth only a single workers movement in the international proletariat could work as a role model, the English would most likely be the ones who could; the workers of England are on the verge of becoming once again what Marx described them as in Capital: the pioneers (‘gladiators’) of the modern working class. They are becoming this not by their theoretical, socialist clarity, which leaves much to be desired, but they are coming to it by their power in the state and their practical successes. At the moment, however, they are significantly impeded by the terrible crisis.

In this new situation in international socialism, the old conflicts have been overcome that we described as between reformism and revolutionism. The English way of thinking becomes ever more in line with that of the rest of Western European socialists.

But even the Marxists of Eastern Europe, as soon as the bankruptcy of the Bolshevik experiment to realise socialism becomes completely clear, will return unanimously, as before, to the Marxist principle that ‘the more industrially developed country only shows the less developed country a picture of its own future.’ (Foreword to the first edition of Capital)

And that is why Rosa Luxemburg and her friends will always claim an outstanding place in the history of socialism, however they mark a chapter in this history which has come to an end.

From Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches: Ihre Bedeutung für deutsche Sozialdemokratie by Karl Kautsky (1921), pp. 14–20